May 24, 2024

North Korea sent its highest-level delegation to Iran in about five years as the U.S. raised concerns that arms sales from Pyongyang and Tehran have helped fuel conflicts in the Middle East and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

In a rare public report of the trip, the official Korean Central News Agency said in a one-sentence dispatch the North Korean delegation led by External Economic Relations Minister Yun Jong Ho left Pyongyang for Tehran on Tuesday. Yun had traveled to Russia earlier in April and has featured prominently in state media as a key player in trade between Pyongyang and Moscow.

While North Korea is unlikely to disclose further details about the trip, it highlights the military cooperation between the two countries and their defiance of the U.S. over the years. North Korea last sent a top member of its parliament to Iran in 2019.

Read More: The World Must Keep a Wary Eye on North Korea

“The Ukraine war has paved the way for cooperation between North Korea and Iran,” said Ban Kil Joo, a research professor at Korea University. “North Korea is sending an economic delegation now but it will be the beginning of a wider military cooperation to follow between the two.”

The U.S. has long accused Iran and North Korea of military cooperation in the missile and nuclear fields that ran from the 1980s and into the first decade of the 2000s. It had tapered off in recent years due to sanctions as well as the development of domestic weapons production in both countries.

Washington has charged the two with sanctions violations in sending arms to Russia for its war in Ukraine, During a visit to South Korea this month, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in return for the arms, Moscow is offering support that aids the weapons programs of both North Korea and Iran.

Read More: Why China, Russia, and North Korea Joining Forces in the Indo-Pacific Isn’t a Prelude to War

The State Department’s senior official for North Korea, Jung Pak, said in an interview this week that there is now a real risk the high-profile nature of North Korea’s relationship with Russia could make its armaments more appealing to other groups around the world.

South Korea’s spy agency issued a rare warning last week about cooperation between Iran and North Korea, saying there is a possibility Pyongyang could have helped Iran in its attack on Israel. South Korea previously said North Korean weapons have been used by Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, against Israel as the war in Gaza drags on.

While there have not been any specific allegations of recent arms transfers between North Korea and Iran, there are items that each could want from the other. Energy-strained North Korea could benefit from Iran’s oil and might be looking to acquire drones like those Tehran has sent to Russia, arms experts Lami Kim said, adding Iran’s nuclear program could receive a boost from North Korean technology.

“Further military cooperation between the two countries is very likely,” said Kim, a professor of security studies at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. 

For its part — and despite a recent leak of hacked documents that indicates otherwise — Iran has repeatedly denied selling Russia drones for use in Ukraine but said it sent a “small number” before the February 2022 invasion.

Moscow and Pyongyang have denied the arms transfers accusations despite a multitude of satellite photos released by research groups and the U.S. government showing the flow of weapons from North Korea to Russia and then to munitions dumps near the border with Ukraine.

“It appears to be part of broader efforts to build a coalition against the U.S.,” said Koo Gi Yeon, a research professor at Seoul National University’s Asia Center, referring to the trip by the North Korean delegation.

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